A Brief History of Psychedelics in the Western World

featured image

This is an edited transcript from a podcast that was recorded live in Bolten Valley, Vermont for a MAPS Psychedelic Dinner event in May 2016.

When I met Albert Hofmann, I introduced myself to him by telling him my birthday, which was April 17, 1943.  He burst out laughing.

– Lenny Gibson

There are three modern turning points in the modern history of psychedelics. The first one being when Albert Hofmann had the experience that led him to realize the psychotropic properties of the substance he had synthesized. The second one was when Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina, connected with Maria Sabina, who was a curandera who used mushrooms. This event resulted in the introduction of psilocybin, in addition to LSD. The third turning point was when Hoffman and Wasson were together, and Hoffman synthesized psilocybin. Psilocybin became readily available, instead of having to go to some obscure place in Mexico to beg people to find somebody who knew where to get the mushrooms.

Greek History

The use of substances in providing transcendent experiences goes back beyond the beginnings of our written history in the west. The shamanic tradition in Greece led to the development of the tragic plays – The great tragic plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. The Greek word tragedy, literally means goatskin, because in the festivals of Dionysus, who was the god of wine, when the new wine was decanted everybody got really high on the new wine. It gave people permission to act like goats and as you know Dionysus was portrayed as half man and half goat. Dionysus had also been to the underworld and back, like Orpheus, another person that comes out of the shamanic traditions and into, what we call, the Greek Mystery Religions. The most prominent of the Mystery religions was one called the Eleusinian Mysteries, a mystery not in the sense of Ellery Queen, but a mystery in the sense of mystical. That rite goes back beyond recorded time and lasted for, at least, two thousand years. It was a rite built around the myth of Demeter and Persephone.

Image result for Eleusinian Mysteries
Source: Wikipedia

Persephone was out picking flowers in the meadow on a spring day and Hades came along and grabbed her, took her down into the underworld. Demeter, her mother, was distraught but Persephone was gone. Demeter appealed to the other gods for help getting Persephone back. It was of no use. So finally, Demeter since she was the goddess of agriculture and growing things, decided that she would stop everything growing. Clearly a symptom of depression.

Image result for Eleusinian Mysteries

It didn’t bother the gods because they lived on Ambrosia. But then it occurred to them that if the human beings starved to death there’d be no one to worship the gods. That got to them and they agreed to help Demeter and prevailed upon Hades to let Persephone come back, but she had sampled maybe one or seven seeds from a pomegranate. The way those myths work, she couldn’t be completely freed of Hades and had to, ended up spending half her time in Hades and half with her mother. Thus, the variation of the seasons. So the myth is about going into the underworld and coming back, basically, about death and rebirth. It appears to have involved an ergot-derived substance, a psychedelic. We don’t know exactly because the Eleusis were sworn to secrecy and the secret was never revealed – two thousand years. All of the major people, all the intelligentsia, many of the regular people of Greece were initiates. They could do it once. Pindar, the famous poet, who was also an initiate, along with Plato and Xenophon and the whole, even to the Romans, Cicero was an initiate. Marcus Aurelius was the last Roman Emperor, was an initiate. The whole thing [The Eleusinian Mysteries] was killed when Calvin Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity. Pindar says, not revealing a secret, but says of the right, it was an experience dying before dying. But as I said, Constantine saw the Ring of Fire and decided that the Roman Empire should become Christian, they should stop persecuting the Christians and become part of it. And so Christianity doesn’t have a very good track record with substances other than wine and Eucharist, which are psychedelic for a very limited group of people who are intensely into the sacred technology of the mass.

Huxley and Humphry Osmond

So the middle ages is a kind of, in the west, it’s a kind of desert, as far as psychedelics are concerned. And we don’t really find anything of interest until we jump up to the 19th century. Havelock Ellis took peyote on Good Friday, 1897. He wrote it up for the British Journal of Medicine, they rejected it – too fantastical. His other major work, which was in The Psychology of Sex, seven volumes – sold very well. He gave some peyote buttons to William Butler Yates, who realized that we’re all slouching towards Bethlehem.

Humphry Osmond worked a little mental hospital up in Saskatchewan and began experimenting with LSD [and mescaline]. Aldous Huxley somehow learned of this work and said, “If you’re in LA, come by and see me.” Osmond didn’t think it would ever happen, but in fact, there was a bureaucratic problem at the hospital. They needed to reorganize and move Osmond up and get rid of the guy that was above him, and so while they were doing that, they sent Osmond off to an APA convention in LA – where he got in touch with Huxley. They went to a few sessions of the APA convention and were bored to tears. So they adjourned back to Huxley’s place and Osmond turned him on. It took about 90 minutes before it really hit him and then it blew his mind. Huxley was the author of Brave New World and Ape and Essence.  Huxley was one of the major intellectuals in the 20th century and an enormously successful author, half blind, but intensely intellectual. He was part of a circle of people that stretches back really to Havelock Ellis and Hermann Hesse [Who wrote Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game ], and Carl Jung.

But the psychedelic experience was restricted to a very small elite. Huxley, upon trying the mescaline, called it the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the beatific vision. (The Doors of Perception, he produced as a result of it.) In there, he mentions CD Broad, a British philosopher who characterizes the brain as a cerebral reducing valve. Huxley’s first theories here was that psychedelics eliminate some of the filterings of the brain. Fairly crude though, we have a lot more sophisticated stuff now. Robin Carhart-Harris has advanced that considerably.

Huxley was also friends with a fellow named Gerald Heard, who was again, a major intellectual personage in the early-mid 20th century. The two of them eventually came into contact with a guy named Al Hubbard, nicknamed Cappy, because he was the President of the Vancouver Yacht Club and also the Uranium Corporation in Vancouver. He is best described as a kind peripatetic imp. He rode off to Sandoz and got a huge supply of LSD and I guess carted around the world turning people on but kept it limited to a very small group of people like this.

There’s Gerald Heard, there’s Oscar Janiger, who was a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, who found out about LSD, got a large supply of it and a group around him Huxley, Heard, Hubbard, Janiger, Sidney Cohen, they were involved in a salon in the LA area. Their recording secretary was Anais Nin. Janiger also obtained DMT and introduced that into the whole thing.

Humphry Osmond first proposed the term psychedelic at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957. He said the word meant “mind manifested” from the two Greek words for psyche and delos, which means clear. Huxley had sent Osmond a rhyme, which went, “To make this trivial world sublime, take a half a gram of phanerothyme. Thumos means spiritedness in Greek. Osmond wrote back, “The fathom hell or sore angelic, just a take a pinch of psychedelic.”

Tim Leary

Now until Tim Leary came along, the psychedelic usage, although it was a growing circle, was pretty much limited to a fairly elite circle, a circle of intellectuals and a few housewives, as you saw before. But then Timothy Leary got a hold of psilocybin and this is a major turning point because Tim Leary couldn’t contain himself. And, in some ways, he advanced things enormously and in other ways, he set them back terribly. But certainly, and there you see him in some of his many guises.

The basic issue was he had started out doing reasonable research at Harvard and he couldn’t keep it in and started spewing it out. So you get the stuff starting to come out into settings that are not conducive to people getting the best out of it. And he became involved with these folks – Good old Alan, William Burroughs, some of you may know he was heir to the Burroughs fortune, the Burroughs adding machine.

So, here we have these guys, Kerouac, On the Road, and Alan Watts, who was a great talker. So East Coast, we’ve got Tim Leary, and West Coast we got, Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, coming out of on the road.

There’s the bus, the first acid tests, which morphed into the trip festivals, which morphed into Burning Man. The first Human Be-In and down there in the corner is one of the sponsors, Augustus Stanley Owsley III, who had a girlfriend who was good at making LSD and he produced zillions of doses really cheap.

But we have some problems here, the war. Psychedelics and the anti-war movement started synergizing each other and the government got really scared.

They (the government) had been interested in LSD early on. There was a guy named James Moore who accompanied Wasson (Gordon and Valentina) to Mexico under the pretext of being the photographer on one of those CIA plans. He (Moore) brought psilocybin back to back to the CIA. They were interested in it because it having mind effects – they discovered when they gave it to the spies, those hardened spooks ended up over in the corner weeping and crying about brotherly love. Other than the ones that ran frantically out of the room and had to be chased down in Virginia where they were found under a fountain talking about those terrible eyes and the monsters that were insulting them. So, it didn’t work out for the CIA.

Prohibition – California criminalized LSD on October 7th, 1966 and that’s when things started to head down because it drove it underground and that’s the worst thing you can do. I mean, prohibition, it’s like, “Will we ever learn?” We tried prohibition with alcohol. When I lived in Oklahoma, one of the lines there was, “It was so dry.” There were some dry counties in Oklahoma in the 1970’s, and the line was, “They would remain dry as long as the Baptists and the bootleggers could stagger to the poles.” It (psychedelics) went underground and at the same time proliferated.

Sasha Shulgin, wonderful man, wonderful, wonderful man. He could give a lecture on chemistry that was just if you didn’t know a bit about chemistry you would be fascinated. And there he is with his wife Ann and immortalized by Alex Grey. And there’s one of his “dirty pictures” down there in the corner, he called them dirty pictures, the molecules. There’s a great video on YouTube about Sasha called, Dirty Pictures, wonderful video.

And here are other folks – Richard Alpert, of course, was with Tim Leary at Harvard early on, but they diverged, India took on Alpert but it didn’t take on Tim. And we see Alpert in an early phase down there in the corner, we see him in his post-India phase when he turned back into just an ordinary transcendental. We have the intellectualization of Ken Wilbur, and we have a leprechaun fully as filled with impishness as was Cappy, Terry McKenna. That book (Be Here Now), I remember going to the church in LA after Ram Dass had come back from India and it was lovely and there were robes and beads and flowers and it was just fun. They were passing out this thing that says, “If you want a copy of this book we’re gonna publish, fill out one of these cards.” We were going, “Oh, these hippies, I’m not gonna bother filling out the card, ’cause it will never happen.” But it did and it’s still in publication.

Stanislav Grof

As the glorious phase was being dampened by the criminalization and all, there came from Czechoslovakia, the Stanislav Grof, where Stanislav Grof had been, when I was graduating from gymnasium (Gymnasium is like high school/junior college). The summer after gymnasium Stan wanted to become a cartoonist, he liked to draw cartoons. He was headed for the Saint Animation School. He had put in his application because you go right from gymnasium to university or professional school. Then a friend of his came by who had found a copy of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. (Freud was forbidden literature in community culture, Czechoslovakia, behind the iron curtain at the point). The friend was very excited about the book, you know try to get a college kid today to read the Interpretation of Dreams, it’s impossible, but tell them they can’t and boy!

Stan picked up the excitement and begged to borrow the book and he said he stayed up all night reading it. Stan then withdrew his application to film school and put in one to become to medical school. He wanted to become a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst, which he did. Stan trained underground, doing his residence at Charles Hospital in Prague where they were working with the Sandoz Corporation in the development of some of the new major tranquilizers (Mellaril is what they were working with). Stan said, “You know when you work on a pharmaceutical company they’re always sending you stuff,” and they sent something to the program he was, and there appeared a box of ampoules of LSD from Sandoz Laboratories. They started a research program that was totally the opposite of what Tim Leary’s operation was. The communist country, people lay things close to their chest – amazing research. Curing, curing! It was not suppressive like most of the psychotropics, the tranquilizer drugs. They cured the people of profound depression.

In his book, (now called, LSD: Door to the Numinous, It was called, Realms of the Human Unconscious originally), Stan shares a story of a fellow who was severely catatonically depressed for a long time was given LSD. Their practice was to give a small dose of LSD at first, but he didn’t get anything from it so they had increased the dose and kept increasing it. They had got this guy up to 3500 micrograms before they got the first reaction. The guy got up out of his room, went to the kitchen, made a bologna sandwich, and then went to the day room and played chess.

So, Stan got out of Czechoslovakia to this country (USA). Stan said he came out with two suitcases, which contained his notes and two shirts. He then fortuitously hooked up with a man named, Walter Pahnke, who had Timothy Leary in his still relatively stable phase as a dissertation advisor and engaged the famous Good Friday experiment. Walter Pahnke was a physician who had taken a sabbatical to go to divinity school, and then went back to Johns Hopkins and began working with cancer patients on whom the oncologists had given up because they were beyond any help. They were in pain, they were in despair, they were scared, and they were using LSD with these patients. All the videotapes have gone, the last little bits of videotape burned when Stans house burned down some years ago.

Most astounding videotape is a guy who was a stevedore on the docks of Baltimore, in his 60’s, metastasized melanoma, they couldn’t give him anything orally and they had to inject him with dipropyltryptamine. Stan is sitting for him and in the course of this session, this man goes from a sort of Neanderthal with like maybe a vocabulary of 600 words, half of which are profanities, but mostly grunts. His family had abandoned him and in the course of this session he is transformed and he’s lecturing the great doctor Stanislav Grof about the “great recycling yard in the sky.” I cried. I’ve been through throat cancer myself. I’m with people who are cancer survivors and who are still facing terror and with 35, 40 years we could have been making it better. But we’re getting there, finally. I never thought it would happen.

Here’s Stan with Christina, when they were young and in love. They always were in love. There’s Stan with Albert Hoffman. He and Stan were good buddies.

The John Hopkins research fell apart when LSD became criminalized. Michael Murphy and Stan fortuitously hooked up and Murphy invited Stan to Esalen as scholar-in-residence. After a few years Stan needed to produce an income for Esalen, so he put together the technique called, “Holotropic Breathwork.” When I was telling Stan for the second time, the reason I decided on holotropic breathwork training was that I had an experience with holotropic breathwork that was identical with the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with LSD.  Stan said, “That’s what convinced me too.” It’s not like taking a pill and you don’t have any choice, ’cause you gotta work at it, that’s why it’s called breath work – but you can get to the same place.


Rick Doblin was part of the first Holotropic Breathwork training. There were two parallel groups of trainees of Holotropic Breathwork in the mid-80’s. Rick Doblin was in one of them. Rick got it that Timothy Leary wasn’t the way to go. The way to go was to start, get the credentials, go slowly, and slowly, and slowly. (It’s effective). Through the Holotropic Breathwork training, it’s brought people together that have an interest that was disappointed as the 60’s began to fade. A fellow named Michael Mithoefer, who became the lead researcher for MDMA. So, the Holotropic Breathwork stuff really has been the leverage that’s kept things going, where we actually have hope now that we’re going get this (psychedelics becoming legal as medicine).

I was saying to Stan, “Isn’t this great that Michael’s doing the MDMA research.” And Stan says, “Yeah, but you know, that’s all been done, it’s all been written up before. It’s all there. It’s just been forgotten. The real potential is creativity.

And indeed, from counterculture to cyberculture. Rick has been working in the psychological realm and some of the other people that came out of the 60’s, Steve Jobs, among them. The future looks bright to me. And I’m sure happy I’ve lived long enough to see it.

Are you looking for a basic introduction to psychedelics and harm reduction? Check out this mini-course!